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19th March 2004 at 00:00
Can schools create harmony between excellence and enjoyment? The primary strategy aims to join them together. Diane Hofkins reports

When the Government launched the primary strategy for England in May 2003, it caught a changing mood in schools. It was time for more freedom: there should be greater innovation and creativity; the curriculum, which had become overly focused on English and maths, should be broader.

While it was widely agreed that the national literacy and numeracy strategies, introduced in 1998 and 1999 respectively, had raised standards and boosted teachers' skills, national test results had levelled out. And so had enthusiasm. Government targets of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching the desired standard of level 4 in literacy and 75 per cent reaching it in maths by 2002 (rising to 85 per cent in 2004) remained elusive.

The primary strategy document, Excellence and Enjoyment, is meant to give teachers permission to break free of prescription, and to use their own judgment about the needs and learning styles of their pupils. It stresses that fun and innovation can and should go hand in hand with high standards in English and maths. This is reinforced in an introduction by Education Secretary Charles Clarke, who writes: "What makes good primary education great is the fusion of excellence and enjoyment. Children learn better when they are excited and engaged - but what excites them and engages them best is truly excellent teaching, which challenges them and shows them what they can do."

The document's central message is that teachers have the power to decide how they teach. They can "take ownership of the curriculum".

The primary strategy's aim is to bring the whole curriculum, leadership, foundation stage, behaviour, community links and other aspects of education together into a coherent approach. It pulls together existing Government initiatives affecting primary schools, such as Excellence in Cities' work on community links and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's guidance on how to teach speaking and listening. It also introduces new ideas, such the development of a framework of thinking and learning skills to help teachers build on children's talents.

Strategy director Kevan Collins says the aim is to support schools in developing their own distinctive characters, built on the talents and passions of the teachers and reflecting the needs and characteristics of their localities.

This breadth of remit has led to some scepticism, with QCA chairman Sir Anthony Greener declaring the primary strategy to be merely a list. Schools minister Stephen Twigg disagrees: "The reason I would say that it is still a strategy is that it's absolutely informed about primary education. It aims to extend educational opportunities for all children, while retaining the emphasis on literacy and numeracy." He adds: "The shift represented by the strategy is going to take quite a lot of adapting to. People have been used to an approach that's very prescriptive. This is less centralised.

It's more about enabling schools to have some control again over their own curriculum."

Mr Collins sees it as a vision for primary education. His organisation's job is to co-ordinate and marshall a vast array of support to raise standards and ensure children's entitlement to a broad and rich curriculum.

That is being done with a budget of pound;230 million in 2004-05, from the Standards Fund and local authorities, a central team and 966 consultants specialising in such areas as literacy and behaviour based in local authorities.

Some schools are taking Excellence and Enjoyment's message "that teachers have the power to decide how they teach, and that the Government supports that" on board wholeheartedly, while some have always followed their own paths. But in many institutions there is still what educational consultant Pete Hall calls "a climate of fear and insecurity".

Despite assurances from ministers, officials and the chief inspector of schools that the climate has changed, "Teachers still live in fear of teaching an unsatisfactory lesson, fear of not reaching targets, fear of 'poor' Sats results and fear of a 'poor' inspection," says Mr Hall. Other commentators agree with him.

Why should this be? It is partly because the "strait-jacket" of the literacy and numeracy frameworks has turned into a "comfort blanket" for some teachers and heads, but also because of what teaching unions, independent bodies such as the National Primary Trust, and many academics see as a mixed message from the Government. Teachers are told to be creative and to experiment - but come under heavy pressure to meet targets and raise their level of improvement every year. High-stakes tests based on a narrow range of skills and the publication of performance tables will continue to narrow the curriculum, the unions warn.

Stephen Twigg acknowledges a "debate" within the Government about "how far we are focused on literacy and numeracy to the exclusion of the rest of the curriculum, and how far we are promoting the rest. I don't think there needs to be a simple choice between the two," he says. "There's not a single answer for every school."

Mr Twigg insists that literacy attainment is crucial, but carrying on with a narrow focus won't release the energy that's needed to raise standards further. He wants to develop teachers' deeper knowledge of English and maths, as well as other subjects, and believes the development of modern languages in primary schools in the coming years has great potential, including in raising literacy standards.

"I think the challenge to me as a minister is to demonstrate our real commitment to what we said in Excellence and Enjoyment. We are seeing through what we said in that document," he says. One example is the pilot to use tests to underpin teachers' own assessments of children at key stage 1, which is now under way, and in which Mr Twigg has great confidence.

League tables will be broadened to include more and fairer data, he says.

In addition to value-added scores - showing whether children have done better than expected - they may include a profile of the school, with information about awards such as Artsmark and a brief summary of Ofsted's judgment, to give a wider picture.

Schools have now begun setting their own test results targets, rather than having them handed down from above.

The minister says schools have already made remarkable achievements and he is particularly pleased that the greatest progress is being made by children who are entitled to free school meals. He will consider that a major goal has been reached "if in five years' time we have evidence that we're really starting to crack that link between social and economic deprivation and achievement".

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